Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.
We think that every educator comes to the classroom wanting to make a positive impact in the lives and achievement of every student. When working with students who are learning the English language, education has traditionally focused on the deficits in students’ skills: What don’t they know? What can’t they do or understand? Though well-intended, this could be holding back the achievement of these students.
It’s no secret that students learning the English language have lower average scores on high-stakes achievement tests than those of native English speakers. Is this outcome really surprising when these students are trying to learn content in an unfamiliar language and learn English at the same time?
Setting test scores aside for a minute, students whose first language isn’t English bring many strengths and assets with them to school. They bring language: They already know elements of grammar, vocabulary and sentence structure in their first language. They possess a wealth of background and cultural knowledge about the world, which may be very different from that of native English speakers. In addition, they may be high-achieving in their native language. Without assessment in the native language, teachers will never know.
For this reason, we prefer to use the term emergent bilinguals, because this definition focuses on the assets students bring instead of the deficits they’re trying to overcome. By focusing only on the fact that these students don’t speak English as their first language, educators are missing a key opportunity to leverage emergent bilinguals’ strengths and assets to accelerate their learning.
How asset-based education helps
The science of learning tells us that connecting new ideas to students’ prior knowledge and experience is a powerful learning strategy. By taking an asset-based approach to teaching emergent bilinguals, educators can build upon what these students already know to help them learn both core content and English-language skills.
Bilingual education is an effective way of doing this. It involves teaching core subject content in two languages: a student’s primary or native language, and a secondary language as well.
Teachers working in bilingual classrooms balance their use of both languages when teaching math, science, history and other subjects to help students learn core content knowledge and dual-language skills. Because most public K-12 school systems don’t have the resources to offer multiple bilingual options, bilingual education programs often focus on instruction in English and Spanish, the most common language in US schools besides English.
Providing instruction in more than one language offers many benefits for English learners and native English speakers alike. Research has shown that students who can speak and write in multiple languages have cognitive advantages over their monolingual peers. For instance, students who begin to learn a second language at a young age develop a strong awareness of how language works and are able to achieve a high degree of literacy.
Asset-based education leverages the prior knowledge and native language skills of emergent bilinguals to help them learn core content more effectively. It also taps into these skills to help them become more proficient in English. Many rules and concepts are common to multiple languages; by making the connections between these rules explicit and describing how they apply within each language, educators can leverage the native language skills that emergent bilinguals already possess to help them learn a second language more efficiently.
In fact, the research on bilingual education is unequivocal: “There is no credible evidence that bilingual education adds or creates [a] burden for children, yet … the overriding conclusion from the available evidence is that bilingual education is a net benefit for all children in the early school years.”
Barriers to bilingual education
If studies have established clear benefits to bilingual education for all students, why do so many schools continue to teach emergent bilinguals in English only?
One barrier to implementing bilingual instruction is a lack of understanding about this important pedagogy. Many people continue to believe that the best way to promote English literacy is to immerse students in English-only instruction. If high-stakes exams are given in English, the thinking goes, then instruction should be only in English as well.
Yet, we know that the skills students learn in one language transfer to learning in a second language more efficiently. English-only instruction is not as effective, because it fails to use emergent bilinguals’ skills in their native language as an asset. Overcoming this lack of understanding is essential for more widespread adoption of bilingual education in schools.
Another key challenge is a lack of tools. Educators need not only content but also assessments that are intentionally designed to support teaching and evaluating students in multiple languages. Teachers need a clear understanding of what students know and can do in both languages so they can leverage this existing knowledge to further enhance students’ skills.
The path forward
Fortunately, the education community is working hard to overcome these barriers. Some content and assessment providers now offer carefully scoped and sequenced support in multiple languages to help educators better understand and build on emergent bilingual students’ assets. When it comes to paying for these new programs, schools and districts are using Title 3 and other state funding to establish bilingual programs.
On a state level, California and Texas (home to the largest number of English-language learners in the US) have begun to expand the number of bilingual programs they offer. In California, former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson launched the (unfortunately unfunded) Global California 2030 initiative, with the goal of massively expanding the number of bilingual programs in the state by the beginning of the next decade. In Texas, House Bill 3 provides funding for dual-language instruction in districts that have a minimum of 20 students whose first language is not English.
No matter what the funding situation in your state or district, though, you can embrace asset-based education today. A student’s assets include language, family, knowledge and life experience. Discovering your students’ assets and incorporating them into your teaching helps close learning gaps among emergent bilinguals — and empowers every student in your classroom to learn and grow.
Carol M. Johnson, Ph.D., is the international education officer at Renaissance. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.